Retired Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen and a veteran of 409 combat missions in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, died Jan. 16. He was 102.
The son of a preacher, McGee was born in Cleveland on Dec. 7, 1919. A lifelong leader, he distinguished himself as an Eagle Scout in his youth and remained an inspirational leader throughout his three-decade military career and beyond.
McGee enlisted in the Army on Oct. 26, 1942—one day after his wedding—and earned his pilot’s wings June 30, 1943. McGee flew his first combat mission on Valentine’s Day, 1944, with the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, in Italy.
During World War II, McGee flew the Bell P-39Q Airacobra, Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, and North American P-51 Mustang fighters, escorting B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Germany, Austria, and the Balkans. He had already flown 137 combat missions by the time he was promoted to captain.
Just under a year after deploying to Italy, McGee returned to the United States in December 1944 to teach other aviators how to fly the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala. He remained there until the base closed in 1946.
Transferring to Lockbourne Air Field in Columbus, Ohio, he was base operation and training officer before being reassigned to an air refueling unit.
McGee was promoted to major during the Korean War, flying 100 more combat missions during that time in P-51 Mustangs from the 67th Fighter Bomber Squadron. In Vietnam, as a lieutenant colonel, McGee flew another 172 combat missions in the McDonnell RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft. He retired Jan. 31, 1973, having achieved the rank of colonel and accumulated more than 6,300 flight hours.
He would ultimately be ceremonially promoted to brigadier general during a Feb. 4, 2020, Oval Office event and was later honored during then-President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address.
A spectrum of national leaders noted McGee’s passing, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass, all of whom posted remembrances on social media.
Brown said, “’A life well lived’ is an understatement as applied to Brig. Gen. Charles McGee. As a #TuskegeeAirman & combat aviator with 409 missions, his years in uniform were nothing shy of heroic, and his example of integrity, service & excellence endures.”
McGee stayed in contact with the Air Force throughout his life and continued to inspire Airmen long after he retired. He favored the motto, “Do while you can” and visited Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 6, 2021, one day before his 102nd birthday. There, he received a heritage tour of the 99th Flying Training Squadron and saw a T-1 Jayhawk with his name painted on the side sitting on the flight line.
Vice President Harris posted video of a conversation she had with McGee just before his 102nd birthday.
Among his military honors, McGee received the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with Two Clusters, and two Presidential Unit Citations, according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
After retiring from the military, he was vice president of a real estate holding company and manager of the Kansas City Downtown Airport. He also played a key role in the growth of the Tuskegee Airmen Association.
As a civilian, he was a recipient of the Air Force Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted as a National Aeronautics Association Elder Statesman of Aviation, and received a Congressional Gold Medal.
AFA President Bruce “Orville” Wright said McGee epitomized what it means to be “an Airman for life.”
“Charles McGee’s remarkable progression through three wars, 409 combat missions, 6,300 flight hours, and 102 birthdays was marked by his steadfast dedication to duty and to the service of his country in the Air Force he loved,” said Wright, a retired Air Force lieutenant general. “We lost a great man this week. But we are all better for having had his inspiring example to live by.”